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Musical World vol. 50 no. 7 (Feb. 17, 1872), p. 102
Shaver Silver across “Thespis.”
Thespis; or, The Gods grown Old, is more in the style of a burletta than of an operetta. Opéra bouffe, however, is its official designation; and, apart from a superiority in the libretto and music, it bears a typical resemblance to the works which, under the name of opéra bouffe, are so often presented at the Gaiety, and form the one regular and characteristic entertainment in the (in other respects) ever-varying programmes of that theatre. Opéra bouffe means, in France, comic or burlesque opera, as distinguished from opéra comique, in which it is not essential that the subject be serious, and from grand opéra, in which it is necessary that the dialogue be in recitative, and that the work include a ballet. A ballet forms no part of the opéra bouffe in France. But opéra bouffe in London is adorned with many of the features belonging, in France, to grand opera – such as dancing, scenery, and costumes. The costumes of the dancers are too short, but the dances always too long, having the effect of weakening the dramatic interest, and, what is worse, destroying the character of the work. In almost all conjunctions of music and words there is a sacrifice of one to the other; but in Thespis, Mr. W.S. Gilbert and Mr. Arthur Sullivan have worked harmoniously together. Sufficient opportunities have been given for music; and the music serves only to adorn the piece. The same may not be said of the ballet with pantomimic episodes, which interrupts the action and fatigues the spectator, who cannot be expected to attend to more than two things at once – the play and the music. Grand operas of the French pattern are often so tedious that the corps de ballet, under whatever pretext brought on, is welcomed as a relief. But in a light piece like Thespis, the dancing has rather a bewildering effect; and as the work is good in its essentials, and yet as a whole too long, the incidental divertissement ought to be omitted.
But for the introduction of mere spectacular matter which serves to interrupt the development of an ingenious idea, the story of Thespis would be as intelligible as it is simple. The drama springs out of a meeting on the slopes of Olympus between Jupiter and a few attendant deities, and Thespis and his company of players. Jupiter, accepting the position Heine would have assigned to him as impresario of the universe, sees in Thespis a member of the same profession – the former being manager of the world, the latter, god of a theatrical microcosm. As Jupiter has grown old and lost confidence in himself, while Thespis is in full vigour, and familiar with the nature of the gods from having represented them in burlesque, a compact is made, by which for the term of one year, the two shall change places.
The devil, grown old, became a hermit; but Jupiter, in the same predicament, goes into exile, partly in the hope that, by contact with the earth, he may regain his strength, diminished by long residence in a too ethereal atmosphere; principally, however, to see how Thespis will govern in his absence, and to profit by the example set by the enterprising manager. Thespis, who thinks that because he can manage a company he can govern a world, makes grotesque mistakes; so that when, at the end of a twelvemonth, the complaints of the inhabitants of earth are received by the new deities, the system of the universe seems to have been revolutionized. TThe gods, after their holiday, resume power, and the divine government of the world is carried on under the old conditions. Meanwhile, we see little of the mode in which Thespis exercises his rule. But we have in the first act a feeble Jupiter, an antiquated Mars, a bloated Bacchus, and a used-up Apollo; and in the second, the newly arrived deities from earth show that they have behaved more incapably than the celestials whom they have replaced. Mercury alone has preserved youth, agility, and a thoroughly mercurial temperament. Miss E. Farren plays the part characteristically, moving about the stage like animated quicksilver. Two of the best solos fall justly to her lot, and she delivers both to perfection. Mr. Arthur Sullivan, besides symphonies, can write comic songs, and though his true vein is that of sentiment, he happily combines facetiousness with grace. The grotesque ballad given to Thespis is sung by Mr. Toole in the drollest style, and – as well as Miss Farren’s song, a charming air sung with much expression by Mdlle. Clary, and a brilliant waltz by Miss Loseby, which Strauss would not have disavowed – is applauded and encored. The music is full of elegance, and in one piece at least – Mr. Toole’s legend of the railway official – the orchestration is novel, including a railway bell, a railway whistle and some new instrument imitating the sounds of a train in motion.
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